Why do civil servants enjoy the image they have? There are a number of officers who are doing a fabulous job on the ground but that goes largely unnoticed.
Is it purely a problem of perception? Or, is there something fundamentally wrong? Or is it a combination of both? Is there a way out?
The perception of the civil service is determined by the experience of those who come into contact with them. Gurcharan Das was so put off that he wrote: “Today, our bureaucracy has become the single biggest obstacle to the country’s development. Indians think of their bureaucrats as self-servers, rent-seekers, obstructive and corrupt”. Many do share this opinion of the bureaucracy. There aren’t very many who would concur with Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s observation that “People have a wrong impression. The top bureaucracy is highly disciplined, and it is not obstructive when there is clarity at the top.”
Why is this perception so? Why don’t the deeds of officers like T N Seshan, Julius Ribbero, E Sreedharan and the like define the civil servant? There is no doubt that civil servants do face dilemmas in decision-making right through their careers. The tasks they have to perform, amidst rising expectations, are tough. On a number of occasions, the civil servant’s side of the story never gets to be known. There are instances when politicians disown decisions that are subsequently found to be unpleasant. It is difficult to forget what erstwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did when pushed to the wall. Even he left the civil servants in the lurch, not owning up to the decision that he had taken in his capacity as Coal Minister in the allocation of coal blocks. If a person of his stature and integrity could do that, lesser mortals are capable of much worse.
Civil servants, like any other segment of society, have their share of the good, the bad and the ugly ones. What matters is who amongst these gets recognised by the decision-makers. There are officers who are efficient and honest, but there are also those that are dishonest and inefficient. There is another category of dishonest but efficient officers. The choice rests with the decision-maker. If efficiency and integrity are the criteria to select officers, they will perform. However, if the choice is for a convenient and pliable officer, the civil servants will be perceived as those that bend over backwards and are spineless. It is difficult to believe that honest and efficient police officers were not available when two such officers were being considered for the top posts in the CBI a few years ago. However, convenient officers were put in position and then dumped, giving a bad name to police officers in general, irrespective of the fact that many of them are doing commendable work.
It is generally believed that the background of such officers is thoroughly examined before they are assigned such positions. Then the obvious question arises who is messing up with these critical positions? Who has designed such a process, including the much-touted 360-degree assessment that still leaves so many angles uncovered? If the decision-makers are determined to get only convenient officers, then why should the entire civil service bear the cross of carrying the disrepute that is the residue left when these suitable officers turn into rogues or fall from grace?
However, it takes two to tango. Civil servants cannot be absolved of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. If the civil servant doesn’t allow himself to be used, then he cannot be misused or abused. More often than not, there is a quid-pro-quo. It is the expectation of a reward from the politician that makes the civil servant weak. There is a price to be paid either way. Some civil servants choose immediate rewards. They usually end up paying the price subsequently. But more than a personal price, it damages the institution of the civil service, bringing a bad name to the service as a whole. There are indeed a number of officers available who will go any distance to provide the necessary comfort to the political decision-maker. Unfortunately, they suit the politics of the politician.
How can this be corrected? It may be difficult to evolve a fool-proof mechanism for selection to regular posts in a democracy. However, a mechanism for selection to sensitive posts and post-retirement engagement can be devised. It is necessary to do so because officers manning such posts can make or mar the reputation of many. They can destroy institutions. Moreover, if a transparent and credible system is devised, the officers will not be lured into making ‘sacrifices’ to occupy such positions. It is perhaps incorrect to say that officers should not be given post-retirement engagement. Why should the talent and experience of officers be wasted just because they have reached a particular age? However, it would be unbecoming of an officer to apply for a position. His track record should be good enough for him to be considered for such positions. For this, there will need to be a transparent and credible way of selecting such an officer. As mentioned elsewhere in the book, institutions like the UPSC could play a role. Officers will then get selected on merits and not on the basis of personal affiliation.
Civil Servants are confronted with huge dilemmas during their careers and will continue to do so. However, the inspiration for a change, for any correction or improvement will have to come from within. This inspiration can be sought from such officers who have managed to succeed and serve the country and its people despite these dilemmas. The onus lies on the civil servant himself to resolve these issues while keeping his dignity and self-respect intact, as he, like any other individual, has no control over others. The control that he has is over himself. And hence he has to focus on himself. He has to evolve in a manner that those who want to corrupt him aren’t able to muster the courage to do so. His conscience and ethics must be his firewall. It is difficult but it has been done. Hence, it can be done.
Khudi ko kar itna buland ki har taqdeer se pehle
Khuda bande se kkhud pooche bataa teri razaa kya hai?
Elevate yourself – be such that before each step to the destiny you seek –
The Lord Himself asks you, ‘O Man! Tell me what it is you seek?’